The Cornell Connection: Communication Is Key To Success

Caleb serving as a dining room manager for his restaurant management night

Today, you’d think that concepts like “return on investment” or “predictive analytics” would represent the most important skills for business students to master. From my experience, I’ve learned that the most vital skill is authentic communication. It might seem like we’re going back to the basics, but that’s far from the truth.

The Wall Street Journal highlighted in 2016 that “nearly 58% of employees who touted stellar communication skills were hired over the course of a year” (link). Communication was also discovered to be the most important soft skill for candidates. The same still applies in today’s COVID-19 world. McKinsey & Company Quarterly notes that communication is one of the top three missing skills, even as the world continues to be automated and move to digital work (link).

At the Nolan School of Hotel Administration, communication is taught as a vital skill and emphasized as a differentiator from other business programs. Throughout my time at the school, I not only learned about the importance of communicating, but the application of it, both at Cornell and beyond. Here are some key communication lessons that have allowed me to be more successful in a people-oriented business world.

Keith Barr presenting in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture
Series (Cornell photo)

COMMUNICATION IS THE MOST IMPORTANT BUSINESS SKILL

Learning how to effectively communicate is a priority for any business student. To understand what’s effective, you first need to define it. For me, communication is being able to exchange information clearly and concisely, in its various verbal, visual, and written forms. This then allows people to authentically interact and synthesize complex information. Communication is vital because it allows people to collaborate and learn new information. The idea is simple: we don’t know everything, and we can’t do everything. Thus, we have to rely on each other.

I vividly remember Keith Barr ‘92, CEO of Intercontinental Hotel Groups, emphasizing the importance of good communication skills. During Mr. Barr’s Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, another Hotelie asked what skills are most important in business. He answered with this nugget: “The ability to write, communicate and be articulate is incredibly powerful. [It’s] important in business. And I have a lot of really smart people working for me who can’t write particularly well. And I have a lot of very intelligent people who can’t put together a cogent argument in written format. So understanding the power and the importance of being able to write well, communicate well… it will be hugely beneficial in your career.”

Hotelies presenting (Cornell photo)

THE NOLAN HOTEL SCHOOL TEACHES COMMUNICATION THROUGH CLASS AND EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

The Nolan Hotel School prepares students to be effective communicators through classes and extracurricular opportunities. All Hotelies are required to take Business Writing for Hospitality Leaders and Persuasive Business Communication for Hospitality Leaders courses. Don’t let the names fool you; these classes are more than your basic writing and speech classes. They also changed my entire perspective on communication.

Up until college, I learned how to communicate for academia. These classes taught me to write, speak, and present for the business world. Rather than writing five-paragraph essays, I would learn to write emails and memos that communicated ideas concisely and stood out, keeping in mind that the average business person receives more than 100 emails a day. We would learn to craft dynamic and powerful presentations that convinced a board to make a business change by utilizing engaging visuals, sharing captivating stories, and creating memorable moments. For example, I delivered a presentation to my class to have an airline integrate rideshare options into its customer service software. Rather than simply proposing the idea, I showed the functionality of the product and got the audience involved. I learned to think critically and psychologically about how I presented my information to convince my audience.

Hotelies learn to communicate beyond the traditional classroom setting too. For example, in our restaurant management class, Hotelies are put into groups of three or four as managers of the student-run restaurant for one evening. The course requires students to put our communication skills into practice by coordinating fellow students during dining room service, presenting training to staff, and interacting with guests to create a warm ambiance. Other Nolan School organizations include the Hotel Ezra Cornell, a student-run hospitality conference organization, and Air & Sea Hospitality, an airline and cruise club. Both have allowed me to put theory into practice by having opportunities to coordinate with high-profile speakers and collaborate with fellow students to make events successful.

Nolan School Server Derby Ho Plaza (Cornell Photo)

COMMUNICATION LEARNINGS: FOCUS ON THE AUDIENCE

The most important communication skill I learned is to cater your communication to the person you’re writing or speaking to. If you notice that your client employs short messages, it’s probably best to write your emails similarly. If your manager is very data-driven and analytical, your presentations should be numbers-focused but still simple to follow. Beyond this key learning, here are other best practices that I’d recommend keeping in mind:

* Front-load your important information: In most business cases, your recipient has limited time and will only read or listen to fragments of what you communicate. Make the most of the first minute or paragraph by including your main points here.

* Make the takeaway clear: Make sure your communication content is relevant and lay out the takeaways. Everything should answer the “so what” test: so, what does this mean for me? Every slide, paragraph, or minute should benefit or enlighten your recipient in some way.

* Less content is more: Putting in less information on a slide deck or report is in many cases better. By utilizing white space on a document or more spacing in a presentation, you allow the audience to process the information you’re sharing easier.

All these nuggets of information vastly improve communication. Though they sound like common knowledge, being intentional with these best practices has been greatly beneficial in my work, and I’m confident it’ll help you too.

Hotel Ezra Cornell cocktail reception in the Beck Center. (Cornell Photo)

STRONG COMMUNICATION LEADS TO RELIANCE ON EACH OTHER AND EFFECTIVENESS

Being a more effective communicator has helped me develop a reliable network that makes me more effective in my career. I utilized my Hotelie network to benefit myself and others. For example, my network gave me advice on whether to take a gap year and which internships would be beneficial I also gave back by referring other Hotelie undergraduate students to different alum and internship opportunities. In the end, communication enabled me to discover new perspectives, resources, and ideas that I may have missed.

My ability to communicate has had a profound impact on my work, both academically and professionally. Take my human resources internship at an oil company. I needed to develop a proposal to rethink how senior leadership interacted with employees beyond traditional town halls. I could have simply logged on to Google to find best practices for a post-COVID-19 world. However, this type of proposal would not be tailored to the firm’s unique culture and traits. Because I was new to the firm, I drew on the experiences of other employees to see what worked best. I had to communicate my objectives with various stakeholders as well as conduct focus groups and surveys to gain insights. At each step of my project, communication was critical to my project. Receiving input from more tenured employees allowed me to receive insights that I would not be able to gather on my own. If I didn’t collaborate with others on this project, my proposal would be less effective.

I am by no means a communication expert, let alone a Ted Talk guru. However, I have seen that incremental improvements to my business communication skills have had significant benefits in both my personal and professional life. I encourage you to sign up for the next business communication course you come across. Raise your hand to present at the next team meeting. Being an effective communicator takes time and you’ll never stop learning how to be better. In the end, it makes working with others easier and allows for goals to be accomplished quicker. That makes it worth it.

Air & Sea Hospitality hosting a guest speaker for dinner

Caleb is from Bakersfield, CA and studies Hotel Administration at Cornell University where he aspires to combine the technicalities of business with the warmth of hospitality. His career interests include strategy consulting, real estate, and general tourism. Previously, Caleb interned at American Airlines, Hilton, United Airlines, and HREC Investment Advisors in various business-related roles.

At Cornell, Caleb actively engages with the student community with his involvement in the Dean’s Student Advisory Board; Cru; and Phi Chi Theta, a professional business fraternity. During his free time, he enjoys reading airline articles; jamming out to his favorite music artist, Lauren Daigle; and grabbing food with friends.

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